acts of desperationExcerpt
We were drinking at a bar near his place, a sort of faux-dive bar with neon lettering and sawdust on the floor and we were sitting at the bar on swivel stools, facing in towards each other, hands on the other’s legs, or idling at the neck, or brushing the lips, always touching somewhere.
We spoke about Ciaran’s writing. He was now in a comfortable enough position he could take an extra day off a week to focus on his own creative work. He had never allowed me to read anything he had written except reviews and academic work, most of which was meaningless to me. He was talking about a series of poems he had started work on. I was nodding along, feeling proud and supportive when something slipped through the veil of drunkenness.
“…and that chapter will include the poems I’ve been writing about Freja…”
Freja’s name had rarely come up since our conversation about her five months previously. This had been fine with me. I was so determined and sure that things were going to be perfect between Ciaran and me that I didn’t have room for her.
“What poems?” I asked, heart pounding.
“I must have mentioned it before,” he said, taking a slug of his beer. “No? I’ve been writing a series about her and our relationship, especially the early part when we lived in Oslo together.”
I nodded slowly taking this in, sized, it up as quick as I could. Don’t make a big deal of this, I told myself. I was pragmatic, entering panic mode already, trying to recover my composure.
(What could people be expected to tolerate of me? How much of what I needed could I reasonably demand? Nothing, nothing, nothing.)
I went to the bathroom and stood in front of the sink and wept bitterly, immediately, without thought. I knew it was childish, behaving that way, but it was painful to be reminded this casually that everything I cared about was subject to the whims of others.
I walked back out and sat on the stool, touched his face, squeezed his knee, smiled as best I could. He looked bashful, but was grinning dopily too. I thought to myself with the smallest hint of disgust that he wouldn’t have told me if he wasn’t drunk. For all his performative distaste toward sloppy drunks, he could be one too.
“You’re not upset, are you?”
“No, of course not. Just surprised.”
“Good, good,” he was still smiling that vague, idiotic smile, not really looking at me directly.
“Because I think, actually, they’re quite good. Freja was impressed.”
My face crumpled involuntarily, as it had privately at the sink a few moments before.
“You sent them to her? You sent Freja poems you wrote for her?”
“To get her opinion, yes. And I thought she’d like to see them. We’re just friends, you know.”
I stared at him; disbelieving, overcome. I didn’t cry really, only there was some physical breakdown, which I could feel and which must have been visible. I slackened.
I hadn’t known until that moment how delicately I was keeping everything inside me together those last few months. My body felt as though it had been holding its breath for a very long time and had just realised it couldn’t do so forever. I felt immediately and completely exhausted.
What I was feeling was the failure of superstition and charms- the unreliability of prayer. I had been living in a constant bargain with Ciaran for months. Every day that passed in which I was easy to be with, and accommodating, and a good girlfriend, was a ritual offered up. My body expected them to work, expected the perseverance to mean something. And suddenly it was clear to me that my intentions were meaningless, and I could not magic him into loving me with will alone.
When I looked back at him from my collapse he had hardened.
“For God’s sake,” he leaned forward and hissed. “Don’t be a child,”
I looked back down miserably, unable to shake myself off, quickly, smilingly, as I usually was.
There was a scrape as he pushed his stool back and moved past me.
“Wait,” my mouth was saying instinctively.
I wish I could step inside this memory and steady myself, put a cool hand on my own, convince myself to wait. But my body was moving without thought, scurrying under the bar to gather my belongings, running outside onto the tram tracks, peering either direction. I saw him walking quickly down past the National Museum. He was moving steadily, betraying no sign of the drunkenness from a moment before. I ran after him, feebly calling wait, wait, and grasped for his shoulder when I caught up to him. He shook me off so that I stumbled backwards and then was crying and saying please over and over again.
Ciaran found crying repulsive. Whatever distaste he already felt for me during arguments, the sight of tears sharpened it. His eyes would narrow and lose any residual warmth or compassion. He would turn away from me, refuse to witness.
Was he right to be disgusted? Was it all a show, a ploy to get sympathy? If it was one, it was both unconscious and misguided. It never succeeded in eliciting any good or compassionate feeling, and yet I kept doing it. I never wanted to. It seemed as impossible to restrain as vomit, and its ability to repel him only made me do it harder.
It was, I think, that loss of control that made him hate it so much. To see an adult really cry is a perverse experience. The wailing adult is both childlike and pathetically defeated in a way that is alien to childhood (cursed by the breadth of their experience, lacking the single-minded purity of a child’s grief).
I can see his regal body bearing over my cringing shadow, my hands open and upturned, appealing to him as though for coins, scraps.
Some part of me had already decided to live for him and let him take over the great weight of myself. I was also so frightened of him and what he did to me that I could never admit this decision, neither inwardly nor to him. And so in moments like this one when I was unexpectedly confronted by my own need, my reaction was to deny – to hysterically deny – that it existed. Hence the wailing of sorrys and pleases, the desire to make him forget at once I had ever demanded anything of him.
In these moments – for this was only the first of what amounted eventually to hundreds, whole months, years, of prostrating – I pled with him to see how small I really was.
I said through my huddling and hiding that I was nothing, and I was happy to be nothing if nothing was what pleased him best. If nothing was the least trouble, then I would be it, and gladly. I would be completely blank and still if that was what worked, or as loud as he needed me to be to take up his silences. I would be energetic and lively if he was bored, and when he tired of that I would become as prosaic and dully useful as cutlery.
I didn’t ask love of him. I didn’t want him to look in my direction and see me; there was no thing I could say with confidence was me. I panicked when my need shone through because it was real. The need was a true and human part of me, but I could feel nothing else of myself to be true or human, and so the need seemed ungodly, an aberration.
He walked home and did not actively discourage me from following him. He ignored me, which I could tolerate, in that moment even enjoyed, the better to demonstrate how quiet and good I could be. When we reached his house he stopped outside and turned to me.
“You can come in, and you can stay, but I do not want to talk about this tonight or ever again. Freja and I are adults. We’re older than you. We have a complicated relationship, but it has nothing to do with you and it does not affect you. Understand?”
I nodded eagerly. I didn’t speak again that evening, brushing my teeth and undressing in silence. I allowed him to turn away from me in the bed, as I had known he would, without protest.
I woke at dawn. It was a bright and sterile grey outside. Christmas wasn’t long away.
I looked down at Ciaran, frowning in his fretful sleep. He seemed so young when he slept, his skinniness more apparent in the tight old tshirt he wore. The damp heat he radiated was that of a child sweating out a fever. It is still especially easy for me to love him when I think of him this way. He seemed somehow pre-historic, still-becoming, an animal not yet ready to exist, with whom there was no point in being disappointed.
I crawled out of bed carefully, my stomach a pit of nausea and dread. I walked out into the front room and stared out the window, stretching and reaching towards the ceiling. My body was battered from hunger. I saw Ciaran’s phone lying on the table. The sums were done in seconds. He was in the deeper part of his sleep; I would hear him getting up; his phone didn’t have a lock key.
I knew I was entering new territory from which I couldn’t return. I was invading him and his privacy and personhood, just as I had tried so hard to imply that I wouldn’t with my submission.
Megan Nolan lives in London and was born in Waterford, Ireland. Her essays and reviews have been published in the New York Times, White Review, Sunday Times, Village Voice, The Guardian and the New Statesman. Her debut novel Acts of Desperation was published in March 2021 and has been translated into thirteen languages. In 2022 she was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, and was the recipient of the Betty Trask Award. Her second novel will be published in June 2023.